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House of Games (1987) Review

You’ll be surprised to learn that I do actually know who writer and director David Mamet is outside of film. He’s written a fair few theatre plays, and although I did learn of him through the adaptation of Glengarry Glen Ross, I took the time out of my day to look for other pieces of his work. House of Games struck my interest almost immediately, and with Mamet not only adapting his own work but directing it too, my interest was piqued almost immediately.

Splattering’s of noir elements are woven into the Mamet adaptation. Mamet also directs us rather competently through this story, the consistency of his direction style more and more noticeable as the film heaves itself along. Often utilising long, unmoving camera angles, allowing for us as an audience to focus in on the emotions displayed by lonesome characters is a somewhat ideal scenario. We follow Mike (Joe Mantegna) and Margaret (Lindsay Crouse) as he teaches her the tricks of the conman trade.

These two performances are great, they have solid enough chemistry throughout and it’s more than enough to get by on. Really the only issue is that of the dialogue, which feels crummy at times. Deep seeped in that noir ambiance and never really being able to drag itself out of the cliché that comes from such a genre, House of Games struggles to keep up with the best in the genre, while at the same time not providing too little to knock it down into mediocrity. It treads the line of mundanity and intrigue, never falling flat and never diving into either side. Oddly enough, it makes for a rather unpredictable film, the one consistency to be found within is the inconsistency of the dialogue and supporting characters. Some offer up tremendous scenes, whilst others are the barebones expectations of a lower budget adaptation.

There’s an odd disconnect between character and dialogue though. Some performances, although enjoyable, feel off by a beat or never fully invested in their role. Lindsay Crouse’s leading performance is engaging enough and she produces some strong scenes, but her dialogue delivery is a bit stiff and she never fully convinces me that she’s putting any emotion into her performance. A few scenes with Lilia Skala offer up some tremendously dull storytelling bases, it’s far too clear as to what the story is hinting at, and it gives off the impression that the film believes it to be smarter than it actually is. A shame, since without those scenes this would’ve been a thoroughly engaging piece about a psychiatrist falling to the charms of gangsters and gambling.

House of Games feels like a TV movie at times with its shot placement and its constant hammy acting, but it’s oddly charming and becomes a product of its time. It’s a relic of the past, certainly enjoyable thanks to the incredible writing of David Mamet, and strong performances from the leading cast members make for a comfortable viewing. There are certainly places House of Games could be further developed, it’d actually be quite simple to elevate this one from a meandering adaptation of a stage play. Far from the highs of Mamet’s other adaptation, Glengarry Glen Ross, this adaptation of House of Games is serviceable and consistent throughout.

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Ewan Gleadow
Ewan Gleadow
Editor in Chief at Cult Following | News and culture journalist at Clapper, Daily Star, NewcastleWorld, Daily Mirror | Podcast host of (Don't) Listen to This | Disaster magnet

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